Concerto Italiano

Concerto Italiano

April 8 at 7:00 pm
Central United Methodist Church

Program Notes

The language of Baroque music has become nearly as familiar to our ears as the idiom of Viennese High Classicism (Haydn, Mozart, early Beethoven). Moreover, Baroque musical style is largely stable and homogeneous across Europe, forcing one to look deeper into subtle differences in order to substantiate stylistic comparisons. In other words, we certainly know Baroque music when we hear it - and you will hear nothing else during this entire three-day festival. But descriptions of similar works run the risk of redundancy, and, truth be said, the musical principles behind all of tonight’s selections are far more alike than different. Yet composers usually manage to infuse some tinge of novelty - a spicy dissonance, perhaps, or a contrapuntal magic trick - and we will do well to attend closely for these fleeting instances of aesthetic transcendence.

Antonio Vivaldi (1671-1742) typifies the Italian Baroque better than any other figure: extremely prolific, a brilliant and inventive violinist, working in Venice. In the realm of vocal music, he has been largely overshadowed by figures like Bach and Handel, even though he wrote spectacular operas and sacred works. Partly this is the result of what we might call “life situation.” Handel worked in close relation with several prominent opera companies in London; Bach’s position necessitated weekly cantatas and periodically masses, motets, and passions. Vivaldi never enjoyed such a ready-made venue for vocal music. (Moreover, some of his best sacred works went missing after his death, only to be rediscovered in the last 100 years.) We tend to consider Vivaldi’s professional career solely in relation to the Ospedale della Pietà, the orphanage in Venice where he served as violin teacher and general composer-in-residence. Outside the walls of the orphanage, Vivaldi sought wider fame and financial security as an opera impresario. But inside the Ospedale, he labored brilliantly for years to create a body of deeply influential instrumental works. For instance, Vivaldi wrote hundreds of solo violin concertos, including the evocative “Four Seasons.” But he also composed numerous concertos for multiple soloists, as well as works that spotlight instruments outside the violin family. Among the latter are the three concertos performed this evening, showcasing brass, winds, and the lute.

The natural or valveless trumpet played a significant role in Baroque music. Historically, as performer Kris Kwapis notes, the trumpet originally fulfilled a practical, albeit critical function in civic life of signaling alarm - from invading armies to fires raging within city walls. But gradually, in musical terms, it supplemented earthly connections to embrace a heavenly splendor. Hence, it would be called upon to deliver brilliant fanfare and virtuosic display on festive occasions. Not unrelated, the trumpet part was nearly always notated at the top of an orchestral score during the Baroque era by virtue of its symbolic connection to divine right and the majesty of both earthly and spiritual kingdoms.

Vivaldi created only one original concerto for trumpet; in fact, it is a concerto for two trumpets. It is worth noting that he composed more concerti for mandolin, for example, or recorder than for trumpet. Nevertheless, the work that does exist, Concerto in C, RV 537, is a wonderful demonstration of the Vivaldian ethos. Trumpets and strings present the opening ritornello based on two ideas: a triadic descent followed by rapid rising scale, all delivered in tight canonic imitation between the parts. Indeed, the presence of a second solo trumpet allows Vivaldi to exploit close imitation throughout the movement, while also building counterpoint between the two players during the solo episodes. A very brief slow movement bridges between the Allegros. Notated in bare chords, its exact rendition is largely left to the performers' discretion. The finale regains the opening splendor, merely exchanging rising triads for falling. Here again is the close interchange between twinning trumpets. Despite their nominal identity of purpose, no two trumpets - just like no two people - are the same. One can enjoy detecting ever-so-slightly different nuances, tone, and timbre between the two performers.

The Italian instrumental tradition benefitted greatly from earlier developments in non-instrumental music, primarily the genre of poetic songs known as madrigals. Not to be confused with a 14th-century form of two-part counterpoint, the 16th-century madrigal describes an affective, secular setting of Petrarchan poetry developed in Italy and elsewhere after 1520. Its origins may be traced to older vocal forms such as the frottola and chanson, but what sets it apart is the degree of expressivity and chromatic experimentation, its popular strain, and the quality of its poetry. The madrigal’s home was in Venice, where it developed in the hands of Willaert, Rore, and Arcadelt. Monteverdi played a crucial role by introducing the concerted element: a basic voice-plus-accompaniment texture, though he never shied away from five- and six-part chordal harmony and the accompaniment could range from austere to full.

Born two generations later, Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) contributed outstanding examples of the Italian madrigal to the repertoire. She was the adopted daughter of one of the era’s leading poets, Giulio Strozzi, who played a key role in the success of early opera and was librettist for Monteverdi on at least one occasion. Raised in the highest artistic circles of Venice, Barbara’s early musical talents were cultivated and led to formal study with the famed opera composer Francesco Cavalli - quite a distinction for a young woman in 17th-century Italy. She achieved a place among the finest singers in all of Venice. From that experience Strozzi drew a deep understanding of musical nuance and psychology - especially the effect of performance on the listener - which she successfully transferred into her best madrigals.

Earlier we noted that Vivaldi's Concerto in C for two trumpets is his only one to feature that instrument. By comparison, then, we are blessed with immense riches among concerti for winds. In addition to dozens for flute, oboe, and recorder, there exist over thirty authentic concertos for bassoon written by Vivaldi. That may seem a bit striking for an instrument typically assigned to a supporting role in the basso continuo (along with harpsichord and bass/violone). However, the low reed timbre makes a fabulous contrast against the prevailing string texture, and it was clearly a sound that inspired Vivaldi. Bassoons in the early 1700s were limited in comparison to modern versions, which utilize more keys to easily access a wider range of notes. Never one to acquiesce, Vivaldi often calls for techniques that push the Baroque bassoon - and bassoonist - to the limits.

The Concerto for Bassoon and Strings in D Minor, RV 481, starts with a tempest: strings and bassoon unleash cascades of arpeggios like the mythical bag of winds opened by Odysseus' men. By contrast, the bassoon's first solo episode is almost tender and certainly more plaintive. These oppositions play out over the course of the entire movement, and Vivaldi wonderfully adapts the mass of strings in deference to the bassoon's softer sounds. The middle movement makes the point more emphatically. Rather than a simple link between fast Allegros, this dolorous and lyrical Larghetto in G minor is fully realized, offering a moment for the bassoon's unique emotive tone to shine through. If we needed reminding that Vivaldi wrote superlative opera arias, this will suffice. Finally, the closing Allegro uses various means to create a thrilling tour-de-force of instrumental technique. In the span a few minutes, the bassoonist - formerly quietly serving his turn in the continuo section - must render chains of galloping triplets, rushes of 16th notes, trills, and leaps from the very bottom to the very top of his register.

Early in his career, J. S. Bach gained first hand exposure to the latest Italian style by making keyboard transcriptions of works by Vivaldi and others. One of those works was the Oboe Concerto in D Minor by Alessandro Marcello (1673-1747), a prominent member of a noble Venetian family. Alessandro composed fairly few works and almost none, apart from this exquisite concerto, are heard today. In fact, it may be partly owing to Bach’s attentions that this work did not slip into complete obscurity. That would have been a great shame, of course, for the work evinces great skill. Marcello was not a composer by trade, unlike his more famous brother Benedetto. Instead, he dabbled in a dozen fields, making himself something of a Renaissance man, adept in art and poetry, math and languages. The concerto’s signature material occurs in the central slow movement. This Adagio appears on hundreds of classical samplers and has been used for its poignant sense of yearning in films. For his keyboard transcription, Bach added a wealth of ornamentation to the solo oboe line - much of which had become part of the performance tradition when the oboe concerto is performed today. Even without such decoration, the subtle dissonant chains and rising melodic line are brilliant in their simplicity. The surrounding Allegro movements are not without merit, though the themes lack features such as striking chromatics or rhythmic vitality that could make them more memorable. The oboe writing is skillful, and the finale marks an advance over the opening Allegro. But it is nevertheless fair to say that these outer movements mainly provide a frame; the spotlight will remain squarely on the lovely Adagio.

Vivaldi composed concertos throughout his career. In the 1730s, while creating two smaller lute trios, he wrote his famous Concerto in D for Lute and Strings, RV 93. The work has thrived in the era of classical recordings, typically finding a welcome place among guitarists, and has become one of the most widely performed Baroque works. A reduced scoring for lute, two violins, and continuo makes the whole work feel like intimate chamber music. The themes themselves are simple, and by virtue of repeat signs in all three movements, we have ample opportunity to imbibe them. In this concerto Vivaldi captures a particularly vibrant, ingratiating tone from the start. The central slow movement features the soloist right from the outset. In this case, a tender lute melody hovers over sustained strings. Once again, performers will freely depart from Vivaldi’s skeleton structure during the repeats of the A and B sections. Finally, the fast third movement exemplifies what listeners love about Vivaldi: virtuosic repartee and crystalline harmonic structure. Where Bach would prefer to inject a dose of counterpoint to enliven things, Vivaldi’s preference is for harmonic drive via sequence and contrasting textures. In such passages we tend to know just where Vivaldi is going. Aesthetic pleasure results from surrendering ourselves to the relentless pull of his tonal rhythm.

In comparison to towering figures like Vivaldi, Francesco Geminiani (1687-1762) is a minor figure in our modern perception of the Baroque. However, during his lifetime, his reputation stood equal to Telemann and Handel; indeed, he spent years alongside Handel in London and was the pre-eminent Italian violin virtuoso working on English soil during George I's reign. A generation older than his main teachers, Scarlatti and Corelli, Geminiani cut an imposing figure in terms of composed music as well as theoretical and performance treatises. His Concerto Grosso No. 12 in D Minor, based on the venerable folia tune, brings together a repeating chord progression with melodic variation technique. Composers from Lully to Rachmaninoff have been inspired by the chance to write variations for this progression. Folia apparently stems from a festive Portuguese dance that involved songs with drums and tambourine. By the mid 1600s it had migrated to France, Germany, and then to Italy, where Vivaldi and Corelli both tried their hands at it. In fact, it was Corelli’s famous Opus 5 folia sonata from 1700 that inspired Geminiani. Geminiani’s twenty-four variations range from vigorous and brilliant (as in no. 9) to pensive and subdued (as in no. 14). He also switches freely back and forth between variations for soloists, as in no. 10, and those involving the larger ensemble or ripieno. It remains one of his most frequently-performed works and a brilliant example of why the Baroque style continues to attract admirers, combining elements of formulaic repetition (in this case, harmonic progression) with spontaneity and brilliant technical display.

(c) Jason Stell, 2022